An Interview with Bart Ehrman
The author of Misquoting Jesus discusses his writing process, his faith journey, and why truth matters in the age of coronavirus
As the son of a Southern Baptist pastor, I was excited to talk to Bart Ehrman.
The University of North Carolina professor writes scholarly monographs. He writes undergraduate textbooks. And he has written six New York Times bestsellers— a rare distinction for a biblical scholar. He has appeared on CNN, NPR, Discovery Channel, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and plenty of other places.
After growing up as a fundamentalist Christian, he became an agnostic in his graduate school years, a transition he discusses in several of his books. In fact, that change, more than anything, has been key to his literary career (a fact he mentions often to his wife, who was against this sort of confessional writing).
I talked to Dr. Ehrman by phone at his home in Durham, NC.
Textual criticism is a pretty esoteric topic, yet a number of your books are New York Times bestsellers. What do you think non-academic readers find compelling about this subject?
Technically speaking, only one of my popular books has been about textual criticism because that particular term in my field means something very, very specific. It refers to using ancient manuscripts to establish the original words that an author wrote.
My book Misquoting Jesus is about that, though the principles I use in that book proved successful for other books as well. My view is that scholars, as a rule, devote their lives to studying things, and they’re very good at understanding these things, but they aren’t good at communicating them.
One of the problems is that many scholars don’t understand what would be interesting about what they’re doing to a non-scholar. They often assume that the non-scholar will be interested in exactly what they’re interested in, which is usually not the case.
One of the keys for writing for a popular audience is trying to figure out what an average person would find really interesting about what the scholar is studying.
As you know, people have many weird ideas about the Bible. I knew someone once who had a very literal interpretation of Ecclesiastes 1:9, “There is nothing new under the sun.” He thought that meant that everything that exists now — cars, televisions, airplanes — has always existed. How do scholars respond to extreme beliefs like this?
My view is that it is impossible to reason with irrationality. And it is impossible to convince people who believe absurd things. No matter what you say, they will believe it. So when somebody has a really extreme view, there is no way to talk them out of it.
What are the hardest parts of your work for people to accept?
My field is biblical studies and the history of early Christianity. My research involves trying to understand historically what actually happened in the life of Jesus, in the life of Paul, and what happened in second and third century Christianity.
The difficult thing about this field is that many people already have opinions about these things without actually having any knowledge about them. For example, people have a lot of ideas about the Bible but they’ve never even read the Bible, let alone what scholars have to say about the Bible.
Biblical scholarship takes positions on issues that are important to a lot of people that are very different from what those people were raised on and what they have heard in church. Scholars come to conclusions that a lot of people find backward or wrong-headed without actually looking at the evidence.
For example, do the Gospels give us a historically reliable picture of what Jesus really said and did? Most people just assume the answer is yes. Or they assume that if a document from early Christianity claims to be written by, say, Peter or Paul, then Peter or Paul really did write it.
Scholars often have reasons to question all this. Those kinds of conclusions are shocking to people, and they often just reject them without looking at the evidence.
You’re very open about being a former Christian who is now an agnostic. When you make appearances, do people try to convert you?
I very rarely get people who try to convert me. What I typically have is people who disagree with me. Sometimes they want to argue, but most of the time they just want to present a different view.
I am completely happy with that. The only way to engage somebody is to have an honest disagreement. Often, these disagreements are rooted in completely different assumptions, and so it’s hard to have a sustained conversation with somebody who disagrees with your assumptions.
For example, say somebody thinks that the Bible is the infallible word of God with no mistakes at all. If a scholar points out a contradiction between two passages, and the person rejects the very idea of contradiction, then there can be no discussion. If, however, they have common ground, then they can discuss whether something is a contradiction or not.
At various points in your books, you have incorporated your personal story about the evolution of your faith. Were you nervous about this confessional approach?
Yeah, very much so. The first time I did it was in my book Misquoting Jesus, which is about how scribes changed the wording in copies of the New Testament they were producing. It’s a field of study that has been around for hundreds of years. It goes back to the 16th century, but most people don’t know anything about it.
So I decided to write this book. The problem I had was figuring how to make that interesting! I mean, scribes copying Greek manuscripts? Who wants to read that? My next-door neighbor isn’t interested in that.
It’s like contemplating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Right, it’s that kind of thing. So I wondered how to make it interesting, and I realized why it was interesting to me: it had to do with my faith journey.
Once I realized as a young man that we didn’t have the original copies of the New Testament but only copies that had been changed in places — and sometimes changed so much that we don’t know what the original said — that affected my faith. If I approached the question from that point of view, people would see why it’s important.
My wife and I had debates for weeks and weeks about whether I should do it. She thought it wasn’t a good idea for me to write about my personal life, and I thought it would make a difference if I did. So I went ahead and did it. And I’m glad I did because it made a difference for that book and the rest of my writing career.
Absolutely. You were right.
Yeah, I’ve told her that.
I’m sure she enjoys hearing it.
She sometimes agrees!
Were you always interested in writing?
When I was in high school, I realized that the only way I could write something I found interesting was to make an argument. I was a debater in high school, and I got really interested in how a person makes a superior argument.
Once I started writing like that, I realized I enjoyed writing. I wasn’t very good, but I worked at it through college. And when I went to graduate school, I spent years trying to figure out how to write well. It took a lot of work.
One thing I did was pay close attention to books or articles that I thought were written well and try to figure out how did this author do it. How did he construct a sentence that worked? Then how does the paragraph fit together? What is this person doing to make it work?
If you focus on that for a few years, and then try to model it in you own writing, then eventually, if you have any talent, you can get better.
What is your writing process like?
It depends which kind of book I’m doing, but generally, when I have an idea I want to write about, I jot down ideas of where I imagine it going. Then I start reading and accumulating a bibliography. And I read massively. If it’s for a scholarly book, then I read the scholarship on the topic, not just in English but in German and French and Italian. I read it all.
For a popular book, I usually don’t need to read in other languages. I’ll spend a year or a year and a half doing almost nothing with my time — when I’m not teaching — but reading. I take copious notes on everything I read. The more I read, the more I come up with other ideas.
Eventually, I make outlines of what I want to do in the book. I make a general outline of where I imagine the book going, with maybe five or six major points I want to make. Those points become chapters. Then I make outlines for each chapter, and I expand the outlines until I get to the point where I write the thing, and at that point, it pretty much writes itself. I almost never, for a trade book, worry about how I’m going to structure it while I’m writing. I basically know exactly what I want to do, and I just sit down and write the thing.
I go extremely fast once I’m at the writing stage. For a popular book, it takes me about two weeks, writing about twelve or fourteen thousand words a day.
Once you get into the research process, have you ever found the book going in a different direction than you originally thought?
That’s a good question. I don’t think I’ve every seriously changed direction for an entire book. I’ve often changed my mind about issues that I thought I had decided already, based on my research. I’ve often decided to add a chapter or take away a chapter. But I don’t start out writing about one thing and end up writing about something else, the way some people do.
That happens to fiction writers all the time.
Yes, it does.
You’ve described your scholarship approach as a search for truth. Yet truth doesn’t seem that important in our current culture. As a historian, how does it make you feel to see blatant disregard for facts?
I think there are moments in history where facts become very important, even to people who want to talk about alternative facts.
When it comes to designing a vaccine for a virus that’s affecting the entire world, facts all of a sudden become very important. You constantly have deniers even still, and conspiracy theorists, but the vast majority of people realize that you can only be in denial for so long when it’s a matter of life and death.
The problem is people often don’t make the transference between that obvious realization to other things. And so when dealing, for example, with the kind of work I do, there are some realities about what happened in the past that people want to deny. But historians insist that you can find evidence about what happened in the past.
And you can never establish the same kind of certainty that you can with the sciences. It’s not like you can do some kind of experiment in a lab to prove what happened in the past. It’s a different level of proof, but there is evidence, and it’s important to take that evidence very seriously and not to pretend that evidence doesn’t matter.
Once you start pretending that, it leads to all sorts of awful things that are harmful to society.
We’ve seen that play out in real time over the past three years.
Yes, we have.