Sunday, January 20, 2013

An Open Letter to Professor Bart D Ehrman

Dr Ehrman, it has been less than a year since I began to pay more than passing attention to your work. I read Did Jesus Exist? which was the number-one topic of conversation among my circle of acquaintances for months, and then The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, which I think is greatly admired by everyone I know who's read it, and now I've started in on your new book, Forgery and Counterforgery.

I left graduate school, not for the first time but for the last, in 1992, and since then I have continued pursuits very similar to what would be considered academic. You might say that I'm in Independent Studies -- so independent that I can no longer officially involve a university in my work. In 2007, only because I was fortunate enough to know a psychologist personally who specialized in diagnosing autism, who for years had persistently suggested I undergo testing, I was diagnosed as autistic -- which explained many things in retrospect, including my difficulties in pursuing an academic career despite my passionate interest in academic subjects. Since 1992 I have been an autodidact, studying a wide range of subjects, most especially Latin literature of all eras. My Latin is completely self-taught. How good is my Latin? In the complete absence of tests to measure my progress, instructors to criticize my work and fellow-students against whom to measure myself, it's very hard to say. But having studied German and French as a student, the process of language acquisition was not entirely foreign to me. How many languages can I read, write or speak? As with anyone, the answer depends on how low the bar is set. My native language is English, I'm fluent in German, and I know some Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, and a little bit of some other languages.

Including, lately, Greek and Hebrew, because in 2010, entirely by chance, I happened upon some Internet communities made up of academic Biblical scholars and academics in related fields and interested amateurs, and I feel I must become more familiar with the primary languages of the Bible in order to be able to participate with anything approaching competence in some of the discussions going on among my new acquaintances. Up until then I knew the Bible almost entirely in the form of the Vulgate and the KJV and the Greek Church fathers hardly at all. I had already been dipping my toe, lazily, into the study of Greek, because the more I knew of pre-Christian Latin literature the more keenly I felt my lack of knowledge of Greek, because the literature and other aspects of the culture of the ancient Romans is to such a large degree merely an imitation of and homage to that of Greece.

But of course the beginnings of Christianity are recorded almost entirely in Greek. And now that I've suddenly met all of these people who seriously study Greek and Hebrew, I must make an attempt to keep up. I've reached that wonderful stage of language study where it truly is more fascination than drudgery, and on those occasions when I still become weary of it, I just think of I F Stone: began a course of study in ancient Greek in his 60's, and at the time of his death in his early 80's, so the story goes, he had begun energetically to study Hungarian.

So. Yeah. I'm about polyglotism. So you could dismiss my point by telling yourself that I'm crazy, if you don't know very much about autism, or that I'm obsessed, if you know a little more about it. Just laying out some options for you, trying to be helpful here, before getting to my point, and yes I have rambled a bit before getting to my point. Here it comes now: On page x of Forgery and Counterforgery you mention that originally you had intended to leave all citations of non-English texts untranslated in the main body of the page, with translations consigned to footnotes, but that everyone who talked to you about this was against it, and so you relented, and non-English citations are now in the footnotes and translation in the main text.

I wish that you had gone against the advice of every single person who advised you on this. As you point out on page x, Forgery and Counterforgery is, indeed, a scholarly book. But many more non-scholars read your scholarly books than read most of the scholarly books published in your field. Was this an argument for consigning the non-English passages to the footnotes? For me, it's an argument that you should have done what you wanted to do, and left them in the main text. You and Crossan and Paigels and a few others are the public face of your academic specialty. For centuries, academics in the English-speaking world, and especially academics in the United States, have steadily, disastrously followed a course toward monolingualism. (Thankfully, in the past few decades more and more English-speaking Americans are acknowledging that the US is multilingual, seeing at the very least that tens of millions of Americans speak Spanish as their native language, and realizing some of the benefits of learning at least a little Spanish, and sometimes other languages still. This is happening outside of academia as well as inside, I'm not sure how much credit academics can take for this healthy and natural trend.) Not so many decades ago every Bachelor of Arts in the US, or almost every single one, was still expected to have passed some courses in foreign languages. Now Biblical studies is one of a rapidly-shrinking number of disciplines in which monoligualism is still unacceptable. Yes, many non-academics will read this book. It would have been very good if you had emphasized to them the multilingual character of your work to them, the importance of not relying on translation. If you had shown them a truly scholarly example in the best sense of the term.

Best regards, and Forgery and Counterforgery still seems so far like an excellent book. Like apparently absolutely everyone I know personally who's read it, I found Orthodox Corruption to be excellent. I forgive you for Did Jesus Exist? and for appearing as a talking head on at least one program produced especially for the so-called "History Channel."

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