That's not one of those weaselly titles with a question in it which is, in the author's mind, already conclusively answered, as has been the case in at least one recently-published, briskly-selling book. If you see a question mark in the title of something I've written, it means I'm really not sure about the answer. If I were sure, the last part of this blog entry's title would read either -- And I Should Be or -- But I Shouldn't Be. Until recently it would've been -- And I Should Be, but I'm always going on about how it's bad to be closed-minded, and now, even though it makes me uncomfortable, I am questioning a belief which I have held firmly for some time: the belief that Bart Ehrman squanders his gifts by lending his name and presence to sensationalistic, non-scholarly projects. (See for example The So-Called "History Channel", ch 1, How Bart Ehrman Makes A Joke Of Himself By Appearing On The So-Called "History Channel".)
Of course, if I didn't think rather highly of Ehrman's abilities, there would be nothing for me to be disappointed about.
(Another belief I've held for a while, but not as firmly, and which I have questioned lately, is that there actually are intelligent biblical scholars. Lately I've wondered whether I might be wrong about that, and whether Ehrman, R Joseph Hoffmann, Eric Meyers, Shaye Cohen and a handful of others might only seem intelligent by contrast to the dullards who are the majority of their colleagues. I go back and forth about that one. But for the present, for the sake of argument, let us proceed assuming that some Biblical scholars, Ehrman included, are bona fide scholars, intelligent, learned, diligent and scrupulous.)
Apparently, Bart Ehrman's last 5 books published by Harper's -- Misquoting Jesus,God's Problem,Jesus, Interrupted,Forged: Writing in the Name of God--Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Areand Did Jesus Exist?have sold a combined 750,000 copies. Those are not the last 5 books Ehrman has published, but only 5 of 12 books he's published since 2005. The other 7 were published by Oxford, are aimed at Ehrman's fellow scholars and presumably have sold much less than 750,000 copies all together. Apparently the general public has a horror of footnotes and bibliographies. I'll never understand that. Footnotes and bibliographies are great. The general public are completely missing the boat on that one. Be that as it may, Ehrman's books for Harper's are the one which have made him famous. They've also surely made him at least $1 million since 2005. Maybe $2 million, or $3 million or even more. (Some authors have much better royalty arrangements with their publishers than others.)
And I don't have a problem with Ehrman making money. I sincerely hope that I myself make 7 figures over the course of the next 9 years -- or 8 figures, or preferably even more.
My problem, the bug up my butt, the disappointment referred to in the title, has to do with how many compromises Ehrman makes in order to make that living and to get those books out there. If Ehrman only wrote the books with the footnotes and the bibliographies -- the really good stuff, that is -- and none of the books "aimed at the general public" by making them much less good -- isn't that extremely condescending toward "the general public"? -- and if he worked as hard at marketing his books for Oxford as he does with his books for Harper, would he still be famous, would he sell hundreds of thousands going on millions of copies of the actual good stuff, or would he be just one more well-respected professor of Biblical Studies who very few people had ever heard of? I guess we'll never know, will we? If Ehrman refused to appear on programs which are absolute crap, and everything the so-called "History Channel" makes is crap -- would he be obscure? Or maybe, just maybe, would there be no "History Channel" if Ehrman and his colleagues had some standards about where and when they gave on-camera interviews, and would there instead be high-quality programs on historical topics everywhere you looked on the tube? We probably won't be testing that hypothesis very soon either, will we?
Ehrman's 6th book "for the general public," How Jesus Became God,was published by Harpers this week. It actually has some footnotes. Does this mean that something somewhat like what's bugging me has begun to bug Ehrman too? Eh. Let's come back down to planet Earth and wait and see. On the same day that Ehrman's book was published, Harper also published a book consisting of 5 negatives responses to itby "evangelical scholars." In quotes because this is the 21st For Crying Out Loud century, and you really have to pick one: evangelical, or scholarly. And these 5 guys have picked the former, and won't let Ehrman or anyone else suggest that Jesus wasn't really our Lord and the Savior of Our Immortal Souls -- won't let him say it without going unchallenged, that is. They can't actually stop Ehrman from writing things which contradict Christian beliefs. Those days are a couple of centuries gone now, nyaa, nya nya nyaaaa nya.
The thing is, Ehrman co-operated in this publishing stunt. It's not unusual for a volume to come out dedicated to refuting some book of Ehrman's. But the way it generally works it that the refutation is published a year or two after the book it purports to refute. Ehrman and these 5 evangelicals showed each other their work in advance of publication in order to let Harper's publish the 2 books at the same time. It's very much like the Ham-on-Nye debate. And my first reaction was to be disappointed in Ehrman for participating in this simultaneous-publication stunt, because it makes it look as if he considers the arguments of evangelicals, that Jesus was divine, and sent to Earthy by Almighty God to save our souls -- as if all of that stuff which we all get shoved down our throats every day rose to the level of deserving to be invited to a debate with him. And maybe Ehrman does think so, and for all I know he actually debates these same 5 people in lecture halls and whatnot, all the time.
But maybe, maybe, the Ham-on-Nye really helped the cause of science and rational thinking. I know that it confirmed many people in what they already believed, but maybe, maybe, Ham looked ridiculous to some people who hadn't thought he was going to look ridiculous. Maybe some minds were changed. And if that's the case, I don't suppose I can really consider Ham-on-Nye to have been a waste. And if the comparison of Ehrman's book to this book by these 5 yokels has a similar effect, and if Ehrman is having such effects not by accident, but because he knows what he's doing -- well in that case I would have been wrong to be so disappointed in him.
I still don't think it's certain that Jesus existed, of course, and Ehrman apparently still does. But reasonable people can disagree from time to time.