Bart Ehrman was generous enough to tell his readers about some future book projects he is working on. On his blog, he writes:
So, my next book, starting tomorrow, is my Bible textbook. I have two weeks, and I won’t have it all written by then, as it will be much longer than one of my tradebooks. My goal is to have the entire Old Testament section written before I go to England…. That means I will have the house to myself, with almost no distractions, and I can work like a wild man.
Which I plan to do. My goal is to have all eight of the chapters on the Old Testament written before I fly the friendly skies. If I don’t meet the goal – it’s highly ambitious – that will be OK. In London I’ll have a month … and will be able to work every day there. It won’t be as intense, as it won’t be my home study. But it’ll be enough to finish the OT section of the book and to make serious inroads into the NT.
My goal is to have the entire thing finished by the end of September. I want to get onto the next project, doing my research for How Jesus Became God. More than anything else this is what drives me to write fast – wanting to get to the next project, which always sounds even more interesting than the current one!
The latter book doesn’t interest me as much as his current project however. I would much rather like to read about ‘How Jesus Became Man’ (but I suppose James Crossley has already written that book, and I’m reading it now with interest! Also K.L. Noll’s chapter in Thompson’s and my forthcoming collection of essays). But while I was reading this blog post from Ehrman, some of the content troubled me a bit.
Back in March 2011, the inter-highway was abuzz with news of an ebook on the way by Bart Ehrman which supposedly would challenge mythicism. In January, it became clear that the book would be published in hardback as well, which raised some questions: at what point did the ebook become a hardback? And when was the manuscript handed into the publisher? I ask these questions because according to Ehrman:
Normally I will write (that is, type out the words/pages/chapters) for six or seven intense hours a day, starting in the early morning until I finish. For my trade books (and a bit less so for my college textbooks; this doesn’t apply to my scholarship which is much harder to put into writing) I can normally write 14,000 to 16,000 words a day, with this kind of schedule. It is exhilarating. I don’t answer my phone, I shut the door to my study, I put on my headphones, and I write intensely, pounding away at the key board as fast as my fingers will fly, for hours. I will usually take a 20 minute lunch break, and then get back to it, and keep going either until I finish the chapter I’m working on, or until I’m brain dead and can’t do it anymore.
Then I go to my basement exercise room, work out for a couple of hours, take a steam bath (I had an old, small bathroom in my basement converted into a steam room!), eat a nice dinner, have some nice wine, vegetate in the evening, and get a solid night’s sleep, and the next day, do it again.
With this kind of system, I can normally write a trade book in two weeks. I then need to edit it, polish it, mop up loose ends, and so forth. But the writing is the hard part, and I do it with bursts of intensity.
Now, I would say that Did Jesus Exist is a tradebook–clearly it was not written with the intent of becoming an academic book. But here is what is so troubling about it: while I cannot deny that Ehrman does produce some very solid work (especially when writing about manuscripts and interpolations–anything within his specialty), there are faults–debilitating faults–with pumping out books this fast. Not the least of which is that things get missed.
Granted, things can get missed in anyone’s book–whether it took them months (or years) to publish or a matter of weeks. But with added time, mistakes are caught that with limited time have a greater risk of being missed. And I have to wonder if this is not what happened with Ehrman’s book on the historicity of Jesus.
With my chapter in my forthcoming ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’, it took me a solid 5 months of writing, cutting, rewriting, editing, researching, more editing, and finally submission (followed by more editing and cutting) to get the 20 or so pages on Paul that is in the final version of the manuscript. Five months. For 20 pages. And I was no slouch when it came to my background knowledge of the source material or of academic works on Paul. And I’m sure I still made a few mistakes that someone will undoubtedly point out at some time or another.
Now for a good portion of those five months I had a similar schedule to Ehrman. So what is the difference here? How did Ehrman, with well over several months to prepare his book, end up with so many disappointing mistakes? Well, I can’t speak for him, but I did my best to fact-check everything. I’m sure I missed something, because everyone does. But if something was missed, then not only did I miss it on my various readings, but so did all those I sent the final draft to for vetting, the language editor, the copy-editor, and Thomas Thompson–so if there are mistakes, then they were well disguised as nonerrors. And in the event someone corrected me, I took their objections seriously and made an effort to change what I wrote or, in the event I disagreed, made a footnote discussing why I disagreed to some detail.
But I am not so sure Ehrman did the same. Mark Goodacre, who vetted the book (he is mentioned in the acknowledgements), would have probably objected to the dismissively short endnote of which all but ignored his extremely compelling case against Q. So why didn’t Ehrman do the right thing and at least give some additional supporting information for why he felt Goodacre’s case wasn’t convincing? And really? Nobody caught the many, many mistakes in his section on Tacitus?
Some may be wondering why I’m going on about these trade books. ‘They aren’t for scholars’ some may say. And those arguments would be valid. Which is what concerns me. When reading a book, scholars have the added benefit of reading other scholars sympathetically. Laypeople do not have this benefit. Since most will undoubtedly be unfamiliar with the primary and secondary literature, they will not read Ehrman sympathetically, but literally. The difference is a subtle, but vital one. A scholar will know that Tacitus is not that good of a historian–better than some, certainly, but he wasn’t great. Likewise, they will know the correct format for citing Tacitus, even if Ehrman does get it wrong. But a layperson probably won’t know this information, or won’t have the time to fact-check (or even the grounding to recognize an error to fact-check). That should bother everyone. So I don’t know if two-weeks is really appropriate for a book on the past. It seems like too much could be missed, too much ignored–especially implications of the research, which are sometimes not fully realized until later.
Anyway, ranted long enough. Still look forward to these books–especially his textbook.